by Chris Wright
Will Self and drugs go back a long way -- "all the way to the cradle," he says,
laughing. He was raised in an "effortlessly dull" North London suburb by
parents he has described as being "at loggerheads" and "intellectually
snobbish." His mother, who died of cancer in 1988, was a displaced
Jewish-American. His father, who died last year, was a professor at the London
School of Economics. They divorced when Self was 18.
By his own account, Self was a smart kid, albeit one who spent a lot of time
wandering his own imagination. Though his parents encouraged his intellectual
development, they were not what you'd call affectionate. In order to cadge some
attention, perhaps, Will started acting up at an early age. "I was a very
emotionally confused, uncommunicative, and self-destructive child," he says.
"Even before I got into drugs I was self-harming with knives and cigarette
ends, burning myself. So in some way drugs were a relief from all that. That's
why I connected with them."
By the time he was nine, Self was pilfering his parents' booze. At 13 he was a
pothead. By 15 he was on speed. As the boy grew older and his tastes turned to
more exotic contraband, his parents seemed ill-equipped to help him. "My mother
once bought me a book, Cocaine: A Drug and Its Social Evolution," Self recalls.
"My father was incapable of enacting any discipline on me at all. I remember
him finding eight grams of cocaine in my drawer -- I would have been about 17
-- and he said, `I really, really think you ought not to be using cocaine.' "
He adds, "They were liberal parents."
By the time he turned 17, Self was heavily into cocaine and heroin.
Nonetheless, he managed to win a place at Oxford University, where he studied
political philosophy, worked for an anarchist newspaper called the Red Herring,
and performed in a band called, appropriately enough, the Abusers.
"I was quite active politically," Self recalls. "There was much debate into the
late hours over whether the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] were Trots and all
that. It was an odd time. I had a schizophrenia about being an anarchist and
being at Oxford. That confused me. On the other hand, I was as willing to
partake in the elitist credentials as everybody else. I never went to the
lectures or anything like that. I was quite uninvolved except for politics and
By his early 20s, Self had turned his attention from politics to literature. He
became "obsessed" with the idea of writing a book. "I didn't go around going
`I'm gonna be a writer,' partly out of a kind of magical thinking," he says.
"It was such an intense ambition that I thought to actually tell people about
it would queer the pitch. So I didn't harp on it."
Then again, he really didn't have that much to harp about. By that time, Self
was so steeped in illegal substances that he could hardly think straight, let
alone sit down and compose a work of fiction. Even more crippling to his
ambitions, though, were the personal issues that had led him to drugs in the
first place. "The superstructure [of the addiction] was bound up with
nonconformism, revolution, anarchy," he says. "The underlying emotional base
was self-destructive, trying to alleviate the depression, low self-esteem, a
sense of worthlessness."
It was these feelings, Self says, that "hamstrung" him as a writer in those
early years: "Right through my 20s I had that awful feeling that I very much
wanted to express myself but that everything I wrote was rubbish and it had all
been written before. So I sort of tended my flame quite closely in that way."
After graduating from Oxford's Exeter College in 1982, Self "bummed around" for
a few years, working as a builder's mate and in other dead-end jobs. He did
some technical writing, including a stint for a Safeway supermarket in-house
magazine. The first job that allowed Self to flex his creative muscle was as a
cartoonist for the New Statesman. The strip was called Slump, and it featured,
Self explains, "a man who goes to bed and refuses to get up again." The
Statesman is famed for having nurtured the literary talents of people like
Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis. But it would be years before Self could
even dream of entering these rarefied literary circles. As he says now,
"Cartoons required far less intellectual energy than writing a book."
In the mid '80s, though, Self started to turn things around, checking himself
into rehab and going relatively straight. Almost immediately, his writing
talents blossomed. "It just started coming to me," he says. "The voice just
suddenly came." The result of Self's belated creative burst was his 1991
masterpiece The Quantity Theory of Insanity, a collection of characteristically
quirky short stories that immediately marked him as one of the most important
writers of his generation.
Over the next five or six years, Self fitted his drug habit into a writer's
routine. He would spend months getting out of his head, then clean himself up
long enough to work on a book, cloistering himself away in country inns. The
book finished, he would go on another bender until it was time to write again.
It seemed to be working. In 1997, Self published his Swiftian satire Great Apes
to great critical acclaim. As the New York Times Book Review put it, Great Apes
established Self as the "alpha male in the British literary hierarchy."
Today, though, Self admits that he's somewhat disappointed with Great Apes. It
could have been -- should have been -- a much tighter book, he says. In the two
years after its publication, Self's insistence that heroin was, for him, a
"working drug" began to look more and more like a typical case of junkie
justification, smack-headed self-deception. By last year, Self's descent into
narcosis had left him stricken with a nasty case of creative jitters.
"I could feel my wellspring drying up," he says. "It wasn't that I couldn't
construct a sentence. I could still do that. But what happens for most
addictive writers, we have astonishing creative bursts up until the illness
really begins to grip. That's the point where you begin to produce parodies of
what you've done before."
For years, Self had suffered with junkie fortitude the indignities and
infirmities that his addiction heaped upon him. The collapse of his literary
talent, though, he couldn't stomach. "I cleaned up in large part because at
that point I simply realized I couldn't finish the book I was working on," he
says. "I couldn't say the things I wanted to say while enacting the hypocrisy
of my own addiction."
That book, How the Dead Live, did get finished, albeit a year after deadline.
The relief Self felt at its completion, however, had little to do with anxious
telephone messages from his editor. "I don't think I'd take this from anybody
else," he says, "but I have to be honest about it -- with myself -- the book
involved an astonishing level of catharsis."
Will Self's public persona might have softened, but if How the Dead Live is
anything to go by, his fiction hasn't. The book is written in the voice of Lily
Bloom, a 65-year-old Jewish-American living in London. Or dying in London.
Stricken with terminal cancer, Lily spends much of the story lying flat on her
back, spitting in the face of death.
It's hard to muster much sympathy for the woman at first. Lily is a vehicle for
Self's investigation into the grim paradox of Jewish anti-Semitism, and she's
not a pretty picture. Her rambling internal monologue sputters bigotry at every
turn. But it's not just Jews who feel the sting of Lily's disdain. "So many
people left to disparage," she says, "so little time." Full marks to her for
trying, though: Slobodan Milosevic is a "fat fuck," the pope a "dimwit Polack,"
Bill Clinton "spunk drunk," Michael Jackson a "whited-up shvartzer."
As in all of Self's work, the desolation in How the Dead Live is laced with
dark comedy. Lily's riffs on everything from English reserve to international
politics are often groan-out-loud funny. On the modern penchant for
overdesigned automobiles, she sniffs, "Even police cars are fashion statements.
Calling all queers -- there's an all points style bulletin." Still, after a
hundred or so pages of this the reader could be forgiven for wishing the old
bag would hurry up and die already. Then she does. This is where the book
starts to get really interesting.
No one does the implausible as plausibly as Self. He sets out his absurd,
topsy-turvy worlds in a hyper-realistic style, imposing a strict internal logic
on the freakish proceedings. In his last novel, Great Apes, he created a world
in which chimpanzees are on top of the evolutionary heap. In How the Dead Live,
he sets up an afterlife -- based loosely on the Tibetan Book of the Dead --
which makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time.
"There are two ways of proposing something preposterous to the reader," Self
explains. "One is to say, `One morning Gregor Samsa awoke to discover that
during the night he'd turned into an enormous cockroach -- take it or leave
it.' The other is my approach. In Great Apes, I knew that the average reader is
not going to be able to buy the idea that chimpanzees talk. They've read enough
to know that a chimpanzee larynx can only produce 18 as opposed to 53 distinct
phonemes -- and how can you get English language out of that? So I had my
chimps signing to each other. You have to have a sense of what the reader will
In How the Dead Live, Self goes to great pains to create a quasi-realistic
depiction of Lily's afterlife -- which she spends in a crusty little basement
apartment in a North London suburb called Dulston. She attends "Personally
Dead" self-help meetings, frequents greasy spoons serving "Full Dead"
breakfasts, and works a low-level job for a crappy PR firm. "Now I'd have to go
through the whole business of acclimatizing myself," she says at the outset of
her death. "Getting the utilities sorted out, finding out where the local
Sainsbury's was, applying for a library card -- all that crap."
As might be expected in a Buddhist allegory, everything that happens to Lily
after death is a result of her conduct in life. Her preternatural baggage is
telling: there's Lithy, a little ossified fetus that skips around her ankles
singing '70s ditties -- he is the spirit of Lily's stillborn child; there's the
foul-mouthed racist Rude Boy, Lily's son who died in a road accident; and there
are the Fats, a trio of blubbery ghouls who wobble around Lily's apartment
chanting "Fat and old, fat and old" and who represent the weight Lily lost and
gained during her lifetime.
In life, Lily was sex-mad, a chronic overeater -- addicted to earthly
pleasures. Presented with the opportunity to find eternal bliss, Lily opts
instead for a chocolate bar and a good rogering. Enter Phar Lap Jones, an
aboriginal Australian "Death Guide." Phar Lap is a cliché on legs, the
sort of Traditional Person every godless Westerner imagines to be the epitome
of spiritual savvy. "Yairs, nothing here fer you, Lily-girl. Thass true
enough," Phar Lap says. "All this gammin, see -- it's 'cos yer dead but won't
accept it, yeh-hey?" The voice of otherworldly wisdom, it appears, is often
indecipherable. This elaborate, super-subtle, drawn-out joke is classic Self.
In all his work, Self says, he tries to balance "wised-up, exploded metaphoric
humor, this bent for absurdism, and a fairly rigorous, intellectually tight
level of argument." At the heart of How the Dead Live is a critique of
materialism. You cannot turn a page without being confronted by some form of
materialistic excess: sexual fixation, eating disorders, drug addiction,
financial greed, intellectual snobbery, and obsessive self-reflection.
"The book's about people who are addicted to a conception of themselves as the
thinking `I,' " Self says, "who have no notion of their quiddity, of who they
are beyond reflective self-consciousness. I wanted to write a book about the
way death is treated in our culture. Death as we understand it in our
Occidental culture is the big nowhere. I was particularly inspired by my own
mother's death, because I'd been there and seen the fear, the terror she died
Much critical speculation has been cast as to how much Lily Bloom resembles
Self's mother. The biographical similarities are unmistakable: Like Lily,
Self's mother was a Jewish-American woman living in London; like Lily, she
succumbed to cancer in 1988 while in her 60s. In interviews, Self has been
cagey about how far these parallels go. Lily's voice, he says, was inspired
partly by a journal of his mother's he discovered after her death, in which she
wrote candidly -- and often bitterly -- about her family life. Self has also
acknowledged that his mother was "ambivalent" about her Jewishness. But he has
so far stopped short of saying that the character of Lily Bloom is based on his
mother. And you can't blame him; Lily is, after all, a royal bitch.
"Well, you know, this is very tricky," he says. "Because it kind of is her." He
lets out a nervous laugh. "But of course, [my mother] was so much worse." He
laughs again. "Just talking to you, I have a fear that people who read your
piece might think, `Whoa! He's dissing his mother, that's awful, he should
speak respectfully of her, look how negative the character is.' What I ask
people to understand is that there's this enormous amount of sympathy for the
woman in this book. She's a suffering soul."
It's funny to watch Self defend himself in this "Offensive? Moi?" kind of way.
His work is invariably -- and gleefully -- peopled with unspeakably rotten
people. Indeed, compared to the character who has sexual congress with the neck
of a recently decapitated tramp, Lily Bloom is an angel. Self has never shied
away from offending people, and he has often succeeded. Again and again,
critics have slammed Self's penchant for using sexual, violent, and
scatological imagery -- often concomitantly. I put this criticism to Self,
expecting a diatribe against hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. Instead I get
"Hmmm, hmmm," followed by a period of silence.
"I think there's a great deal of validity to the idea that traditional literary
language doesn't treat the human condition in quite the way I've always
experienced it," Self finally says. "I think that as an injecting heroin
addict, my body became very much an idiot twin that I was dragging around with
me. Perhaps other people don't have that. I should imagine that if you're
always at ease with your body, if it's something that always obeys your wishes,
then maybe you do find writing about piss and shit and ejaculation
Ironically, the other criticism often leveled at Self is that he's too
self-consciously brainy, that he expends too much energy performing syntactic
somersaults and pulling streamers of colorful, polysyllabic words out of his
hat. Recently, back in the UK, Self was honored with something called the Too
Clever By Half award.
These criticisms are both valid. Self can be -- and he hates to hear this -- a
difficult writer to read. One minute he's got you leaning over the toilet bowl,
the next he's got you hunting around for your unabridged dictionary. Combined,
though, these apparent flaws are what give Self's work its spark. The clash of
crude physicality with lofty intellectualism gives a dark, contemporary twist
to that old philosophical chestnut, the Mind-Body Problem. More importantly,
In How the Dead Live, however, Self explores new ground: the incompatibility of
the physical and the spiritual. Does this mean that he, like so many recovering
addicts, is casting an eye toward religion? "Oh, I'm off with the fucking
fairies," he says. "Would you like to pray with me now?" He goes on to add that
he's "certainly open to a spiritual dimension to life," but with little
conviction. Speak with Self for long enough and it becomes clear that he comes
closest to rapture through his writing. "It's very definitely a vocation," he
says, "a calling."
In the end, whether How the Dead Live suggests that Self is dissing his mother,
or finding religion, or gaining maturity is beside the point. The question is,
is the book any good? It is. It may even be his best work yet. What's even more
encouraging for admirers of Self's work is that it gets better as it goes
The book is organized into three sections: Dying, Dead, and Deader. The first
section, Self reveals during our interview, was written while he was still
using. The moment when Lily dies marks the point when Self finally kicked the
habit. This seems a very Self-like conceit: to undergo a rebirth at the very
point he kills off his character. To have life and fiction tumble over one
another like that.
More to the point, How the Dead Live may serve as a sort of blueprint for the
transition between the work of Self-the-junkie and that of Self-the-abstainer.
The Dead and Deader sections -- the drug-free sections -- move more fluidly
than the earlier part of the book. There's less linguistic virtuosity and more
plot. There are even a few moments of something approaching genuine humanity.
Perhaps the cleaned-up Will Self will write books about, um, nice things. He
refuses to rule out the possibility.
Of course, the possibility also exists that sobriety may actually hurt Self's
writing. Indeed, for many fans, the idea of Will Self quitting drugs is
unthinkable -- like Tony the Tiger quitting Frosted Flakes. To be sure, one
reason Self's work packs such a punch is that it offers an authentic portrayal
of chronic addiction. Another is that it has always teetered on the edge of
lunacy. In some sense, Self is a quintessentially druggy writer.
"Obviously, nobody could have written `A Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz' if
they hadn't had a fucking huge crack habit," Self says, clearly not happy with
the suggestion that his drug use and his work are codependent. In fact, he
looks so glum at this moment that I regret ever having raised the topic.
"You know, I would have loved to have had a different life," he continues. "I
would have loved to have applied my gifts to writing about nature, to writing
positively and constructively about social situations, to writing about the
spiritual bond between people. But I had no knowledge of that because I was
locked in my bubble of narcosis. So no, I don't really hold with that. I own
what I have done, I own my work, but I don't think that's what's me,
necessarily. There are other possible worlds in which things might have been
Is there anything at all about the old Will he'll miss?
"Of course there were good times," he says. "I thrilled to the moment when I
was in a hotel in England with a gang of people, sort of ripping up the room,
and the floor waiter knocked on the door. I said to everyone, `Shut up! Get in
the toilet. Put that joint out. Urgh! Urgh!' Then I went to the door and the
waiter said, `Mr. Self, the manager just wanted me to tell you that anything
you want to do is fine.' I thought that was it, I've arrived. And yet that
appealed to the worst part of my nature, the grandiosity of the addiction. It
was a part of myself, but an exaggerated part of myself, because I'm actually a
private person, quite a gentle person."
A few moments later there's a knock on the door. It's a floor waiter, a
different one, this time bearing a plate of cold-turkey sandwiches. Will Self
tucks into his with the kind of appetite we've come to expect of him.
Chris Wright can be reached at cwright[a]phx.com.